Tagged: Beasts of Bourbon

Tex Perkins on surviving the Beasts of Bourbon

On 14 April last year, an unusually poignant gig took place at the Prince of Wales Hotel in St Kilda, Melbourne. The Beasts of Bourbon – the self-styled ugliest, most badass rock band on the planet – played what would be their final gig in what was perhaps the only way the band could have ended.

Bass player Brian Henry Hooper, for whom the gig was a benefit, was surrounded by half a dozen nurses and wearing an oxygen mask. No one had been sure whether he would be able to play until the moment arrived; the band’s original bassist Boris Sudjovic was on standby. Guitarist Spencer P Jones was also playing one of his final performances.

Hooper passed away from lung cancer six days later, aged 55. Jones died on 21 August, aged 61. And the Beasts of Bourbon – the band that stubbornly refused to die, and had been through numerous permutations and reconciliations during a 25-year history of inebriation, as demanded by the band’s very name – was officially dead.

By comparison, Tex Perkins, the band’s frontman, is in rude health, a few streaks of grey through his leonine mane of hair being the main giveaway of his 54 years. His latest blood tests have come back clear – the first thing he tells me, in response to a benign greeting.

But with that comes survivor’s guilt. The singer is virtually a symbol of old-school Australian masculinity – in his height, his low growl, and his band’s well-earned reputation as hard livers. Until their livers, collectively, started to scream for mercy.

The last year, he says, has been “a long, long slog”, and it’s left him vulnerable.

“Psychologically, it’s been a tough year, not only for the grieving but for the self-reflection that comes with seeing friends go – and we all have a similar history,” he says. “I had a lot of self-examination, which was unfruitful, really. I didn’t really come up with a good answer.”

That doesn’t mean he’s not trying to find it. His conversation is notable for long pauses and longer stares into space, across the beer garden of a pub on the far north coast of New South Wales. In the end, the best he can come up with is time: “You’ve just got to keep going and you obsess about these things a little less, hopefully.”

Out of that grief, the band has risen again, in new/old form, as the Beasts. Sudjovic returns alongside original, previously estranged guitarist Kim Salmon, who joins his replacement Charlie Owen, and drummer Tony Pola.

On his deathbed, delirious, Hooper had demanded that Perkins book studio time. Perkins rang around and, while the bass player didn’t make it, the surviving members – gathered together in Melbourne for his funeral – bashed out an album, Still Here, in a single session.

It was similar to how the Beasts of Bourbon had recorded their debut The Axeman’s Jazz in 1984, though perhaps not fuelled by as many intoxicants. The “freakish takeaway”, Perkins says, is “this magnificent new version of the band which I’m really excited about”.

The name, though, had to go. Most fans knew them in shorthand as the Beasts anyway, but Perkins says he’s tired of shouldering what he calls the mythology of the Beasts of Bourbon. “I don’t want to have to carry around that history any longer,” he says. “And I really feel that also, just quietly, it’s a bit of a curse.”

If that’s the case, he acknowledges, it was a curse of the group’s own making. The Beasts of Bourbon made a handful of Australia’s hardest, meanest rock & roll records this side of AC/DC, but the legacy of the band was mostly on stage, where they set a benchmark of live performance.

The price, though, has been immense. The Beasts of Bourbon “[broke] the bar record every time we played – that became part of our reputation”, Perkins says. They were “always drunk, always belligerent”, and songs like Chase The Dragon detailed the harder edge and habits of some of the members, Jones and Hooper most certainly included. In the last year, Perkins says, “we saw the results”.

“Spencer didn’t get away with this one,” he says. “Spencer died many times, and miraculously came back. So did Brian. Brian was the ultimate phoenix, rising from the ashes over and over again, and actually I thought his illness was going to be another example of Brian wilfully just kicking adversity in the arse.”

Jones did manage to play on one of his last songs on Still Here. It’s called At The Hospital – where, the guitarist noted wryly, “there’s so many class A drugs”.

Apart from grief, Perkins says, “to see it all catch up with us, for me and possibly other people … There’s a whole lot of regret and guilt.”

At the same time there’s been healing, especially with Salmon, who had left the band in 1993 to pursue his own project the Surrealists – a continuation of his earlier, legendary band the Scientists. “I’ve always loved Kim. I started out as a Scientists fan, I was an every-gig fan, one of those fans.

In a song called Time, which Jones covered, New York songwriter and poet Richard Hell said that you only see things for what they really are when you’re stepping into your hearse. “If you don’t learn anything on the way, that’s true,” Perkins says. “But I don’t know, that’s a …” he trails off. “There’s always regret that you’ll never shake.”

For him, the next test will be singing the songs on stage. “I’ve got no idea how it’s going to go, whether it’s going to be as emotional, whether I’ll have to just sing the fucking song and not think about what [I’m] actually singing about. I’ve got no idea. But I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

First published in The Guardian, 9 February 2019

Spencer P Jones: Hellraiser among Australian rock greats

Spencer P Jones wasn’t a household name of Australian rock music. But he worked with many who were (Tex Perkins, in their band the Beasts of Bourbon, as well as Paul Kelly and Renée Geyer) and was held in high esteem by many beyond these shores, notably Neil Young.

His work as a guitarist and songwriter also influenced many, including the Drones, who covered one of his songs and whose principal members, Gareth Liddiard and Fiona Kitschin, recorded an album with him under the name the Nothing Butts in 2012.

The news of his passing from liver cancer on Tuesday, aged 61, was no surprise. He’d been forced into retirement from the stage (a place you otherwise couldn’t keep him from) a few years ago, and was advised of his terminal condition in June.

His rare appearances had been limited to guest spots, one of his last being for the Beasts of Bourbon’s bass player Brian Hooper in April. Hooper came out of hospital to perform, took the stage in a wheelchair and wearing an oxygen mask, and died days later, aged 55.

If this paints a familiarly grim picture of the rock musician’s fate, it might be worth mentioning that Jones’s first album with the Johnnys, recorded in 1986, was called Highlights Of A Dangerous Life. The highlights from Spencer’s could easily fill a book.

But unlike most rock stars, Jones didn’t look away from the consequences of his choices. One of his later songs, sadly never released, was called The Monkey Has Gone. A sad lament punctuated by clashing guitar chords in the chorus, it was about cleaning up, and owning it:

The monkey has gone
Time to move along
Get on with my life
Say sorry to my wife
But that’s a different song
Thankfully, the monkey has gone

Born in Te Awamutu, New Zealand in 1956, Jones arrived in Sydney in 1976. In his first week there, he saw Broderick Smith’s country rock band the Dingoes, Radio Birdman at French’s Tavern in Darlinghurst and a much-bootlegged show by AC/DC at the Haymarket.

Those three gigs and their respective influences – country, punk and hard rock – all informed his later work. The Johnnys, Jones’s first band of note, were dubbed “cowpunk”, and they played the image to the hilt, wearing Stetsons, chaps and Cuban heels.

They also kept bar fridges on stage, painted as black as their amplifiers, which they’d open between each number to take beers from – a gimmick that helped prevent their riders from being pilfered.

The beer poured in rivers from the bar taps, too, but other stunts made them a publican’s nightmare. At the end of shows, the band would cut the twine holding the hay bales on stage, scattering straw throughout the venue. (This back in the days when everyone smoked at gigs.)

The Beasts of Bourbon, a supergroup featuring Perkins and the Scientists’ Kim Salmon, were an even more lethal proposition. Their first album, The Axeman’s Jazz, was recorded in a single eight-hour session, fuelled by three cases of beer and, well, who knows what else.

By the band’s fourth album, The Low Road – led by a song called Chase The Dragon – the band’s hard edge and habits were becoming obvious. They were ferocious live, Jones lurking in the shadows, puffing smoke from under the hat that obscured his receding hairline.

As a guitar player, he was highly rated, coming in 17th in a poll of Australian musicians that was topped by Cold Chisel’s Ian Moss. His Stratocaster chugged and wailed, always a bit behind the beat, and he held the history of rock & roll in his right hand.

At that stage, Jones wasn’t a prolific writer. The two Johnnys albums were padded with covers, and he contributed a minority of songs to the Beasts of Bourbon. But the quality control was high, and after his first solo album, Rumour Of Death in 1994, he blossomed.

For much of the 1990s, Jones played in Paul Kelly’s band. Jones once told me that Kelly taught him that songs didn’t just fall out of the sky: “You’ve got to do the work,” he said. After leaving the band, Jones hit a purple patch, recording a string of terrific albums through the 2000s.

Looking through his body of work – with the Johnnys, Beasts of Bourbon, Hell to Pay (formed with another hellraiser, Ian Rilen) and his solo records, what stands out above all is the consistency. You’d be hard pressed to identify a bad song on any of them.

It’s easy to imagine Bleeding Heart, a single recorded with the Johnnys with a little help from Kelly, as being a big hit in the latter’s hands. In time, we may view Jones as a songwriter of Kelly’s equal, but Jones’s snarling delivery and reputation undoubtedly scared many off.

There’s another story to be told here, about the Australian music industry’s cowardice and ageism. Had Jones been based in Austin, Texas and started a little earlier, he might have been venerated and celebrated for both his songs and transgressions, in the way of other outlaw country artists such as Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson.

But that’s a different song. Paraphrasing one of his best, The Day Marty Robbins Died, he’s with Mother Maybelle Carter and Hank Williams now, in that Grand Ole Opry in the sky.

First published in The Guardian, 23 August 2018

The Drones: Feelin Kinda Free

When right-wing columnist/performance artist Andrew Bolt heard the Drones’ single Taman Shud, he wrote that the band was “stamping on the ashes of the West’s musical traditions”. Supposedly offended by the thought that singer Gareth Liddiard didn’t give a toss about anything he said, he added: “critics like these make me feel like I’m offending exactly the right kind of people”.

Naturally, the Drones were delighted. First, they would no doubt feel exactly the same way about offending Bolt and his tabloid constituency. Second, the group has taken a serious left turn with their seventh album, Feelin Kinda Free. “We said ‘fuck it’ and went spaz,” Liddiard told The Guardian last October. He couldn’t have dreamed of a better critical endorsement than Bolt’s “stamping on the ashes” line.

“It’s a pretty weird record and you can dance to it,” Liddiard said of the album. “It’s time to have a groovy Drones record. We’re sick of being a bunch of drags.” With respect, Bolt’s description was pithier, more accurate and more complimentary. Taman Shud was one of the most compelling singles of last year, but good luck to anyone who hit the dance floor to its skittish rhythms.

Boredom, the sixth track on Feelin Kinda Free, is in a similar vein. If the Drones once came on like the mutant, brawling blues-punk offspring of the Birthday Party and the Beasts of Bourbon, this sounds more like the mostly forgotten Australian post-punk of Pel Mel and Sardine v. Frankly, it’s a lot more interesting and original, stamping all over the Drones’ own musical traditions.

“The best songs are like bad dreams,” mutters Liddiard in Private Execution. It’s a fabulous opening line – and what follows is a succession of nightmares. Always fascinated by Australian history, the Drones were once the musical equivalent of a McCubbin painting; pioneers trapped in foreign landscapes. Here they take a step into the avant-garde world of the Angry Penguins, Albert Tucker and Sidney Nolan.

The Angry Penguins movement was an interrogation, and rejection, of an earlier kind of Australian nationalism represented by the bush balladeers. Feelin Kinda Free is as decisive a repudiation, both of the Drones’ past and of the mythic, monocultural Australian vision of John Howard, Tony Abbott and, yes, Andrew Bolt: “I don’t give a fuck if you can’t stop the boats,” Liddiard sneers in Taman Shud.

The dominant themes here are immigration and its attendant cousin, paranoia. And Then They Came For Me finds Liddiard “feeling like I’ve overstayed”. On the album’s final track, Shut Down SETI, he imagines Fortress Australia overrun by aliens: “Do we need an overlord that finds us underwhelming? You don’t defend your house and home by jumping down a rabbit hole.”

Taman Shud and Boredom aside, Feelin Kinda Free slithers by like a serpent in search of its next meal. The feel is unhurried, but menacing. While the songs still stretch out like elastic, there are only eight of them, so at 41 minutes, the album doesn’t outstay its welcome. The emphasis is mostly on bass and percussion: guitars are heavily treated; frequently, you’d be forgiven for thinking there are no guitars at all.

The closest thing to anything from the Drones’ past is the agonised To Think I Was In Love With You, which sits squarely in the album’s centre without dragging it down. Otherwise, Feelin Kinda Free sounds like the work of a less dour and far more subversive band. Despite the subject matter and often funereal pace, it’s anything but a drag.

First published in The Guardian, 18 March 2016

“He was like a god”: Australian musicians mourn David Bowie

As the Australian music community absorbs the news of the passing of David Bowie at the age of 69 yesterday, musicians and songwriters – especially those who came of age in the 1970s and early ’80s, when the songwriter was at his peak – have spoken of his profound influence on both their work and their lives.

Melbourne soloist Jen Cloher expressed commonly recurring theme of disbelief. “I turned to Courtney [Barnett, Cloher’s partner] last night and said, you just never thought that David Bowie would die. Which is ludicrous, but that’s how it feels … He was like a god.”

Cloher also spoke of Bowie’s indirect impact on her as a queer artist. “The ’70s in so many ways were far more dangerous, far more edgy, far more open to a broad idea of gender than today. It would have rubbed off. You grow up around that, and it infiltrates in ways that you don’t even think about at the time.”

Robert Forster, co-founder of the Go-Betweens, has often written and spoken of his admiration for Bowie. “Bowie was obviously the most important white musical figure of the ’70s. He bestrode the decade like no one else.

“Bowie was beautiful, which was confrontational for a 14, 15-year-old boy. The most beautiful pop star of the early ’70s was a man, which is an amazing thing by itself, and Bowie played it to the hilt.

“All the Melbourne boys at the time – Sean Kelly, James Freud, Nick Cave – loved Bowie. The Brisbane boys loved Bowie too, but they didn’t want to be Bowie. All the Melbourne boys loved Bowie and wanted to be Bowie. There’s a lot of photos of those boys in make-up, believe you me! That’s how the different cities took to it.

“He was this beautiful flittering presence, and an amazing songwriter. It was Rebel Rebel; it was Golden Years; it was Diamond Dogs. I could name every track off Ziggy Stardust and Hunky Dory. It was Sound And Vision; it was Heroes, it was just an amazing run.”

Yet Bowie was also remembered as an open and friendly presence, a world removed from his alien persona. Graham “Buzz” Bidstrup, who supported Bowie on his first Australian tour in 1978 as a member of the Angels, recalled Bowie introducing himself backstage over a bowl of soup.

“It was one of the first times I had met someone really famous who was incredibly normal, and he put to shame a number of people I met who were nowhere near as talented.”

Kim Salmon, of pioneering punk-blues group the Scientists and later the Beasts of Bourbon and the Surrealists, posted a personal note on his Facebook page that highlighted the intergenerational nature of Bowie’s cultural legacy.

“A few months ago I took my 11-year-old daughter to the Bowie exhibition. Today she said it – I said it – he gave people permission to be exactly who they were. When I was a 14-year-old spaced-out science fiction kid he was my man.

“When my drop-dead gorgeous friend was wondering about his sexuality, Bowie gave him permission to be what he was. Lately my daughter’s been far above the world, floating in her tin can, and it hasn’t been easy. Bowie was there to let her know it’s OK. Thanks to his massive body of work, he’s still there.”

David Bridie, of Not Drowning, Waving and My Friend The Chocolate Cake, also pointed to Bowie’s astonishing output.

“There are very few artists you could say made at least eight classic albums – Hunky Dory, Lodger, Low, Aladdin Sane, ‘Heroes’, Scary Monsters, Ziggy Stardust and Station To Station. Fine work, Mr Jones.”

“Regardless of his image or his sense of how he projected himself, there was always the songs, and he wrote some of the best pop songs ever written,” Cloher said. “He transcended our idea of what rock or pop music should be. I guess the Beatles started fucking with those ideas, but I felt that Bowie took it to the next level.

“He never lost melody, his sense of what a good pop song is. Genius is thrown around far too often, but in the case of David Bowie, he really did possess that quality.”

First published in The Guardian, 12 January 2016

You can’t have me: why I said no to Crikey

Nearly 20 years ago, my first piece of journalism was published. For a music fan, it was an auspicious beginning: I saw a young You Am I supporting rock behemoths the Beasts of Bourbon at the Mansfield Tavern, one of those great suburban beer barns that gave up on live music long ago. One band was at its peak; the other scaling theirs. My review appeared in a Brisbane street paper, and I was paid $35.

My path was set. Before the cheque had cleared I had spent it, down to the last cent, on an anthology of rock & roll writing. In it, I was introduced to all the greats of the genre: Nick Kent, Lester Bangs, Deborah Frost, Ellen Willis, Greil Marcus and the godfather of music criticism, Crawdaddy! founder Paul Williams, who had a significant personal impact on me. Collectively, these writers taught me everything I knew.

I could always string a decent sentence together, but it still took me years to find my own voice. Like most writers, musicians and artists, I derive little enjoyment from looking back at early work. There can’t be too many rawer forms of growing up in public, and while I still enjoy writing about music, it’s not often these days that I write straight reviews of records or shows, as I did with this piece on Television.

I was pleased with the piece and sent it to The Monthly, who knocked it back on the perfectly reasonable grounds that they already had a music writer. Undaunted, I then offered it to Crikey’s Weekender section. It wasn’t right for that, either, but encouragingly, they handballed it to the just-appointed editor of The Daily Review, Crikey’s newest forthcoming offshoot.

On the same day, a piece written by Tim Kreider for the New York Times appeared on my Facebook feed. I read it with interest. His story was depressingly familiar. “I now contribute to some of the most prestigious publications in the English-speaking world, for which I am paid the same amount as, if not less than, I was paid by my local alternative weekly when I sold my first piece of writing for print in 1989,” he said.

Readers of this blog will know that additions have become rarer in recent times. That’s because it’s almost always unpaid work. When I do get paid, it’s because a piece has been picked up and run elsewhere. Others are sad orphans, rejected by all and sundry, with nowhere else to go. Occasionally, I write something purely for its own sake, but not too often. There is too much other work to be done.

The other reason new entries have been sparse is more personal. For the first half of this year I was caught up in another one of those annoying battles with depression that flatten me from time to time. And a big part of that malaise was the dire state of my industry. I was 42, about to get married (my partner and I accomplished this milestone three weeks ago), and still driving a cab two nights a week to keep going.

The editor of The Daily Review contacted me with what appeared on the face of it to be a plum gig. Writing like mine, he said, was exactly what he wanted to publish. He’d seen the Television piece, and knew of my book. Would I like to be the website’s music writer, covering everything from big stadium events to smaller shows that might be worthy of wider exposure? Jobs such as this are rare indeed.

What’s more, I adore Crikey. A day is not complete without a good laugh (or occasional cry) at cartoonist First Dog on the Moon and a hot, caffeinated shot of federal politics from Bernard Keane. It’s smart, acerbic, funny, and asks questions the old media often won’t, or has forgotten how to. And Eric Beecher, the chair of Private Media, is one of the smartest media minds in the country, as well as a deadly earnest chronicler of journalism’s decline.

What’s coming will probably surprise no one. The Daily Review had no budget for contributors. Submissions would be accepted on a copy-share basis, so that anything published on the site would also appear here on Friction. There was the vaguely hopeful prospect, but not a promise, that I might be paid “something at least” when advertising increased at some time in the undetermined future. I’ve heard that one before.

Twenty years, I thought, and my asking rate has gone from $35 to zero.

Do I need to add it would be great exposure? I have no doubt plenty of eyeballs would have been drawn to this blog that weren’t looking before. And of course, there were all the free gigs I could handle, which actually was reasonably enticing, what with Leonard Cohen touring and the summer festival season at hand. But I have been doing this too long to be in it for the tickets.

What was implied, but unsaid, was that I would also attract eyeballs, and advertising, to The Daily Review. Is it arrogant to point out that I have 20 years’ experience, and have built a reasonable reputation within my field? Isn’t that what normal people do when they fill in selection criteria, submit resumes, and attend interviews? In this case, there was no need: for the first time in my working life, I’d been headhunted.

The sealer was this: the editor (a decent fellow who’d been around the traps for long enough himself; none of this epic complaint letter is directed at him) had sent out a plea on Twitter for a Brisbane-based music writer, and received many enthusiastic replies from people who frankly sounded a lot like me 20 years ago. But that wasn’t what he was after: he wanted “a Crikey-quality writer/reviewer”. And apparently I was the man.

I spoke to him on the phone the next day – after less than a full night’s sleep, having already changed my mind half a dozen times – and told him as politely as I could that if that was the case, then it was reasonable to ask for Crikey-quality rates. These are, by industry standards, rather low, but I said that would be OK, because I respected and believed in the publication, and loved the idea of writing for it regularly.

The editor understood, but there was nothing he could do, other than suggest that if content also suited the main Crikey site, I could be published on that as well, and thus be paid for those pieces. That amounted to the status quo. I suggested a three-month trial – doesn’t everything have a free trial period these days? Again, the spreadsheet said no. I didn’t want to waste any more of his time, or mine, so we paid our regrets, and left it at that.

I’d like to say this was an easy call. It wasn’t. After a while, one gets desperate for the smallest morsel of validation; even the most opaque promises of future reward can make the pot of gold seem close at hand. The desperate are just as easily exploited as the young and keen. But I have spent enough time in my life chasing rainbows. Besides, how would I justify working for free, at my age, to my newly betrothed?

I also thought of my peers, friends and colleagues. If I took the job, I would become complicit in undermining their careers, as well as mine. It felt like providing scab labour, just when so-called content creators were beginning to man the picket lines. I accept that, in writing this, I’m unlikely to get too many more offers from Crikey, but it feels more important to join the chorus of voices saying enough is enough.

I don’t know anything about the business models or balance sheets of Private Media, who publish Crikey. But I think it’s fair to assume that at some point, its principals, Beecher included, sat down in a room together, made a conscious decision to expand their arts and culture coverage, and sallied forth on this new adventure with no budget to remunerate the people best qualified to do the job. This is journalism on credit.

I fail to see how such a strategy does not leave Private Media in the same murky territory as, say, Mia Freedman’s Mamamia (see note and clarification below). Freedman (whom, incidentally, Keane never misses a chance to give a good kicking on Twitter) has done extremely well out of creating the sort of personal cult around herself that her followers are sadly only too honoured to pay homage to in the form of free content.

Unfortunately, I am sure The Daily Review will have no trouble attracting some bright young thing to do the job. There is always someone out there talented and enthusiastic enough, possibly still living at home, unburdened by the responsibilities of adult life. I’ve been watching them skate past me for years. But, while I can’t eat integrity, I couldn’t swallow what was being served up here, either.

(Update: this piece has been reprinted by mUmBRELLA, where Crikey editor Jason Whittaker has left a response.)

(Update #2: this piece has also been reprinted by Collapse Board.)

(Update #3: Mia Freedman has left the following response on mUmBRELLA):

“Hi Andrew,

I agree with Tim: don’t do anything for free if you don’t see a mutual benefit.

However you are incorrect in stating that Mamamia does not pay for content. We do and have been for some time now.

Mamamia and ivillage also employ 10 full time journalists, 8 part-time journalists and a growing number of regular columnists.

We are in the process of hiring more journos at a time when most major media organisations are making them redundant.

Would appreciate you correcting that.”

Apologies to Mia: I missed the news last July that, following prolonged criticism, Mamamia would begin paying its contributors a flat $50 fee for articles. However, as someone who was paid exactly ten times that amount – in 1995! – for my first op-ed column in a newspaper, and never less than $350 since, I have to say (as many others have already) that Mia’s insistence that “newspapers and magazines have traditionally not paid writers of opinion content” is simply not true. I find that a baffling assertion from a professional with so many years in the industry. I’m also sceptical that a profitable and exceptionally popular website that employs 18 journalists is somehow absolved from paying its contributors a fairer rate because it is “not a big media corporation”. Less than 12 months ago, Freedman defended not paying her contributors on the grounds that they were instead receiving, you guessed it, valuable “exposure”. Unfortunately, judging by the comments stream, many of Mamamia‘s fans still consider it an honour to write for the site for nix. So I’m letting that second-last paragraph stand, with a direction to this clarification…

(Update #4: A group of long-serving Crikey bloggers have penned an open letter to freelance writers, imploring them NOT to contribute to The Daily Review. One of the bloggers, Bethanie Blanchard – founder of Liticism – has had a planned paid piece on writer Christos Tsiolkos spiked by Crikey, although Crikey claims this is coincidental. The story has also been reported by The Australian (paywalled).